why give back when you can take back? wal-mart employees, katrina survivors in the same sinking boat

Have you heard of Debbie Shank?

Like more than one million Americans, Shank was an employee of Wal-Mart; unlike many of her fellow employees, she eventually qualified for the company's health insurance plan. Just three months later, Shank was in a horrific car accident, hit by a tractor trailer. She was left brain damaged and permanently disabled. Fortunately, the insurance paid her hospital bills, so at least Debbie's husband and three sons were not left destitute. Debbie now lives in a nursing home.

Debbie's husband, Jim Shank, sued the trucking company that hit her, hoping to cover some of the costs of Debbie's care. The Shanks won a modest settlement, which would go towards Debbie's round-the-clock care.

That's when Jim Shank got a call from Wal-Mart's lawyers: they were suing the Shanks for the settlement. This was, apparently, standard procedure.

With the help of Wal-Mart Watch, SEIU, and people all over the US, the Shanks fought back.

Shank's story has been the focus of a long battle by Wal-Mart Watch, who raised awareness, pressure and funds to help the Shanks. Last week, they won!

Wal-Mart agreed to allow the Shank family to keep the money they won from the trucking company responsible for Debbie's injuries, and dropped its legal proceedings against Jim and Debbie Shank. You can read more about the battle here at Wal-Mart Watch. However, the clause in the insurance contracts that entitles Wal-Mart to do this remains. The battle will not truly be won until Wal-Mart treats its 1.3 million employees fairly. (Does global warming cover hell freezing over?)

I thought of Debbie Shank when I read this story about survivors of Hurricane Katrina.
Imagine that your home was reduced to mold and wood framing by Hurricane Katrina. Desperate for money to rebuild, you engage in a frustrating bureaucratic process, and after months of living in a government-provided trailer tainted with formaldehyde you finally win a federal grant.

Then a collector calls with the staggering news that you have to pay back thousands of dollars.

Thousands of Katrina victims may be in that situation.

A private contractor under investigation for the compensation it received to run the Road Home grant program for Katrina victims says that in the rush to deliver aid to homeowners in need some people got too much. Now it wants to hire a separate company to collect millions in grant overpayments.

. . .

One-third of qualified applicants for Road Home help had yet to receive any rebuilding check as of this past week. The program, which has come to symbolize the lurching Katrina recovery effort, is financed by $11 billion in federal funds.

. . .

Brann pointed out that 5,000 collections cases would represent a 4-percent error rate for the Road Home that is "quite good for large federal programs."

Frank Silvestri, co-chair of the Citizen's Road Home Action Team, a group that formed out of frustrations with ICF [the contractor], sees it far differently.

"They want people to pay for their incompetence and their mistakes. What they need to be is aggressive about finding the underpayments," he said. "People relied, to their detriment, on their (ICF's) expertise and rebuilt their houses and now they want to squeeze this money back out of them."

The prospect of Road Home grant collections comes less than two weeks after the Louisiana inspector general and the legislative auditor said they were investigating why former Gov. Kathleen Blanco paid ICF an extra $156 million in her waning days in office to administer the program. With the increase, ICF stands to earn $912 million to run Road Home, a contract that also sweetened its initial public stock offering, and helped it buy out four other companies. It now reaches into government contracting sectors that include national defense and the environment.

. . .

Upon receiving money from Road Home, grantees sign a batch of forms, including one that says they must refund any overpayments.

Melanie Ehrlich, co-chair of Citizen's Road Home Action Team, which has documented Road Home cases that appear littered with mistakes, said she had no confidence that ICF had correctly calculated overpayments. She charged that the company was more likely using collections as retribution against people who had appealed their award amounts in effort to get the aid they deserved.

"I think they are looking for ways to decrease awards and that's part of dissuading people," she said.

Did you catch this part? "One-third of qualified applicants for Road Home help had yet to receive any rebuilding check as of this past week."

We moved to Canada the day of Hurricane Katrina. We have been here a few months shy of three years. Since that day we have lived in two houses, lost a dog, adopted another, lost and found jobs, written who-knows-how-many words, hosted two parties, travelled to Peru, collected Canadian Tire money, seen our team win another World Series... and there are people still waiting to receive a dollar of help to rebuild their lives.

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